back to article Google Adwords scammer charged premium to call NHS Direct

Premium-rate call regulator PhonePayPlus has fined Red Play Media £50,000 for using Adword adverts to trick surfers into using premium-rate numbers to call non-premium services. Red Play Media bought up Adwords, and Bing equivalents, to place links alongside searches for "NHS Direct" or similar. Clicking on the advert brings …


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  1. mamsey


    This is where hacktavist groups could come into their own, step up and help protect vunerable people against this sort of exploitation.

    1. A Non e-mouse Silver badge

      Re: Anonymous...

      Two wrongs don't make a right.

      1. P Saunders

        Maybe not

        But the results can be hilarious...

      2. Great Bu

        Re: Anonymous...

        "Two wrongs don't make a right." - No, but three lefts do......

      3. LinkOfHyrule

        Two wrongs don't make a right...

        Two Wonga.coms don't make a right you mean!


        I'll be putting Jimmy Carr out of business with jokes like that! No wonder he's doing adverts for sodding Starbucks now!

    2. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Anonymous...

      it doesnt need a hactivist group, it would be quite possible for a non hactivist group of objectors to do it with little or no specialist knowledge

      hypothetically speaking... if a group of people wanted to object to this type of "scam" on moral grounds, they could though non agressive and legal means object to the advert by actually clicking the advert and then not calling the phone number.

      Every click costs them money, the more people who click the ad, then return to google and click a legitimate search term istead, will reduce their CTR, their ad campaign will appear to be less relevant to the search term and the cost per click to maintain the top spot in google will increase. Additionally if the campaign has a fixed daily budget, it will be depleted and the advert will fall off google for that day, unless it is manually updated.

      If 1000 people decided to click their ad and not phone their hookey phone service, say only once per hour, just in case the offer has changed, assuming a £0.10 - £0.25 Cost Per Click rate It would cost them £100 - £250 every hour. which would set them back £2400-£6000 per day of protest. and thats only with 1000 people objecting.

      google can track IP and monitor for this sort of clicking behaviour, but its hard for a company to prove the clicks were not legitimate and get a refund from google for click fraud.

      However organising a orchestrated clicking protest may be seen as a DOS attack and criminal charges may be pressed.

      If enough people did this the company would begin to realise they are not getting a rate of return high enough to justify the increasing google budget, and would have to consider closing down the ad for that phrase.

      Again just a hypothetical way to object to this sort of company and its not so moral behaviour. The legal aspects of it I couldnt be too sure of.

      1. Stratman

        Re: Anonymous...

        Even better if this were to be done while not sitting in Starbux.

      2. Tree

        Gurgle puts this on your screen

        Why give Gurgle more revenue by frivolous clicks on the scam advertiser? Without their search engine bringing this up, you would not be tempted to waste money on these phone calls. It would seem better to refrain from clicking on their ad and click on the CORRECT telephone number to help your fellow man by raising that to the top. Google could already do that if it were not so evil and greedy.

  2. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward


    I'd like the ability to dial 09's as an Opt-In with every carrier, not a "Oh you have to pay to restrict that service" which kind of defies the point.

    1. Graham Marsden

      Re: Personally

      Ah, yes, I can see lots of people phoning up their phone provider saying "Please can I access 09xxx numbers, I'm really not doing it for the sex lines, of course..."

  3. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Help yourself, help your relatives

    Make a list of telephone numbers you might require in case of (near) panic. Next to emergency numbers, doctors, hospitals, credit card cancellation, your bank's local branch and headquarters, accountant, lawyer, local food delivery, and whatever else you can come up with. Plant the list securely next to the land line or whatever is appropriate for you. Then help your relatives do the same.

    Not the first time people end up doing stupid stuff trying to amend for stupid stuff having happened. You're quite vulnerable when hastily not thinking. A relative-by-marriage fell for a credit card phishing scam, got told (by family) to cancel the credit card right away, called a googled number, which turned out to be another very friendly person asking for PINs and whatnot. For this sort of thing, it helps to've spent a couple minutes figuring it out beforehand. And it might even help circumvent the case where the legitimate service phone is already a premium number, as the non-premium number behind it might be findable with a bit of searching.

    Also good to have: Fax(modem) and list of fax numbers. Instead of waiting in queue or navigating an oh-so-helpful menu system, write a message politely venting your spleen then fax it. Better than an email (if only for the lack of "your mesage is so value to us"-autoresponder, also legal status in many countries) and faster than a letter. Also: Free receipt. You can always call up right on its heels to make sure they get moving, and at least they have the full story with all the relevant details spelled out correctly.

    This premium phone fronting is a neat little scam, but relatively easy to defend against. A little preparation goes a long way here.

  4. This post has been deleted by its author

  5. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    Not so much 'scam' as SCUM

    See title

  6. Fuzz


    I take it the £50000 is used to refund all the people who dialled the number?

    I also presume that the company and it's owners are banned from owning a premium rate number for the next few years.

    1. Anonymous Coward
      Anonymous Coward

      Re: Refunds?

      warning: sarcasm! ;)

  7. Stephen 2

    How is this a scam?

    It seems that the page openly admits how much it will cost to call the premium rate number.

    Apart from being a bit more expensive, how is this any different from those 118 services?

    Morally bankrupt perhaps, a scam? Not really.

    1. terlan

      Re: How is this a scam?

      Its known as passing off. The advert is delivertly designed to lure visitors by appearing to be the genuine service, in this case nhs direct.

      Since paid links on google appear before standard results and only differ in background colour very slightly, the vast majority of people will see the top link, assume it is the authority site and click it.

      Add a confusingly similar domain name, say, very vague text in small print of below the fold on the browser to cover the legal angles and perhaps obscure who they are or servies they prvide using long winded text. The unsuspecting or unaware punter wont realise its not a genuine site, dial the number on it and get stung.

      As opposed to directory services (118, yell etc) who dont pretend to be the nhs or tax office or tax advice service and are open as to what services they supply in pretty plain text. When you call them you are aware they are premium services and your going to be charged a high call rate.

    2. Graham Marsden
      Thumb Down

      Re: How is this a scam?

      It's a scam like the companies who offer "services" which charge you for reclaiming PPI or for obtaining an EHIC are scams, they are attempting to obtain money by deception.

    3. Henry Wertz 1 Gold badge

      Re: How is this a scam?

      You didn't read the whole article. They said 1) By buying an ad for "NHS Direct", the regulators decided some looking up NHS DIrect would in fact need health care, and so be impaired. Premium number regulations prohibit trying to profit from impaired people. 2) Using the wayback machine, it was found that these sites DID NOT always have that disclaimer (I don't think they were fined because of this, but probably should have been.)

      I just looked at, and on the front page there's no mention of any cost, and the search box says "Use the search box below to locate the phone number of the company or organisation you are looking for.", NOT "Use the search box below to get some 900 number that'll read you the phone number you are looking for.") Without the fine print (which is only on the final page....) it'd seem clear based on the web site design that if you type "Sony" into the search box, then pick Sony off the second page (because they list both Sony and Sony Erricson), that the third page has Sony's phone number.

  8. Anonymous Coward
    Anonymous Coward

    So its a bit like 118 from BT

    * Calls to 118 500 cost £1.69 per minute or part thereof with a 62p connection charge from BT landlines (excluding BT payphones). Mobiles and other networks may vary.

  9. vagabondo

    don't use Google

    Use or, etc. as the default search engine. Problem solved.

  10. Crisp Silver badge

    How does the fine print make it legal?

    I didn't think I could enter a contract that requires me to give up my statutory rights.

  11. AndrueC Silver badge
    Thumb Down

    People actually read adverts? - Sad.

    People actually click on them? - Madness.

  12. Rob Willett
    Thumb Up

    Tried this and couldn't get the scammer up...

    ...and then realised I had AdBlock running.

    Since every computer I own has this I have forgotten all about ads. Wonderful add-on to your browser, mandatory in my view.


  13. Steady Eddy

    If you're dumb enough to type stuff into Google and click on the top link then you deserve to get scammed.

    I know someone who failed her driving test. On the back of the bit of paper the examiner gives you, it says "to book a test, go to". What did she do? Types "book driving test online" in Google and clicks on the top link. And then asked me why the Department of Transport took payment via PayPal.

    Google are evil.

    PhonePhonePlus is a stupid name.

    There is no need for premium rate phone numbers any more, you can get free porno online nowadays. Or so I'm told.

  14. This post has been deleted by its author

  15. vagabondo

    Presentation Numbers

    It might help if organisations such as the NHS, Tax and Pension offices, etc. presented an appropriate call-back number when they called out. It would make it easier to find the number to change an out-patient appointment etc. without resorting to a search engine.

  16. Anonymous Coward
    Thumb Down

    There's a lot of it about!

    Closer to home, for us "IT angle" types: this kind of scam brings to mind those feckers Melbourne Network Solutions, who trawl the lists of about-to-expire domain names and then send out to the owners, letters which look like an official invoice for the domain renewal, with teensy weensy text at the bottom telling you that the letter isn't really an invoice and you are not obliged to switch to them as your registrar.

    I wonder how many people have fallen for their snidey tricks?

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